Sand of Bone heads off to its editor and final reader tonight, so I’m taking a little break in order to let me brain think about something else for a bit.
I am not a structured worldbuilder. Before writing, I do not sit down to answer a hundred questions about culture, religion, navigation, textiles, government, livestock, gender relations, history, trade, exploration, child-rearing, and economics. That’s not my process. (For that, check out this post, wherein I discuss altering my worldbuilding to fit the plot rather than the other way around.)
That doesn’t mean I don’t care. I deeply care. I don’t expect to get everything right, but I want it to be right enough to keep the reader with me.
There’s a great deal of writerly talk about educating ourselves on history, government, economics, and culture. That’s absolutely necessary. But what hangs me up more often than not is geology and botany. Certainly I could just make everything up, but constructing properly integrated flora and fauna and climate and geography from the ground up is beyond my ken. So I do what most of us do: attempt to match my world and plot needs to a Real World equivalent, and adapt within parameters broad enough to be flexible yet narrow enough to avoid (as much as possible) Flying Snowmen.
“…every now and then, fist-sized bats swooped in to feed on the pale moths flitting around pomegranate trees not yet in bloom.” Sand of Bone
The sentence fragment is from a scene that takes place in a desert with a short winter and long summer, at a time roughly equivalent to late February in the northern hemisphere. It has to be that time of year in order for the timing of other events—one around the solstice—to take place. And I wanted bats. Not hibernating bats, but active bats.*
The only bats I knew of hibernate from fall to spring. Thankfully, I discovered there are many species of bats that don’t hibernate—enough I could play with size and habitat to fit the plot—so I was in the clear.
Next, I needed something for the bats to eat, and I wanted their airborne prey to be large enough for the viewpoint character to see from the balcony. Do these non-hibernating bats feed on moths? Yes, I discovered, they do.
Next question: are those moths around in late February? This took a little more Google-Fu than the bat question. Eventually I came across a couple websites with February photos of moths, mostly taken by folks looking to identify them—in desert terrain. Ta-da! Moths and bats.
Finally, the pomegranate tree. I had one in my Southern California backyard when I was a kid. Every year, it produced a zillion pomegranates the size of softballs. Not until I moved out on my own did I realize just how expensive pomegranates could be. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished that tree could be transported to my current home. (The lime tree would be nice, too, because it produced like there was no tomorrow. My sister and I made pocket money pulling our wagon through the neighborhood to sell limes door-to-door.)
As clearly as I remember gorging on pomegranates, I have no recollection of the seasonal timing of blooms and fruit production. That, of course, might have something to do with the shallow seasons one experiences in Southern California. The answer was simple to find, though. I could have my pomegranate tree for the character to look upon, but no blossoms until mid-spring.
This, my darlings, is why revisions can take me so long.
Will most readers give a damn? Gods above, I hope not. I mean, if my readers are more focused on the damned moth than the plot and characters, I have most likely failed to tell a compelling story.** But such “unnoticed” details form a larger picture, and sometimes its faults are actually easier to see in the whole than in the parts. The non-detail-oriented reader might not be able to point out what seems amiss, but that indistinct sense of imbalance will put distance between the writer and the story.
Distance is bad. Immersion is key.
However, unrelenting specificity will kill interest just as quickly. My reader doesn’t need to know everything about the Muscat mouse-tailed bat (though I do think it’s cool one of their designated roosting sites is “in pyramids). The reader simply needs to believe the bat swooping through the courtyard fits in the world the characters inhabits.
Having said all that, I expect I’ve made a glaring error or two that an expert will one day find. I’ll research and fact-check every piece of worldbuilding I don’t hold complete confidence in. It’s the things I’m certain I know—but don’t—that will come back to nip my rear someday.
*Hibernating bats would have added a different creepy to many cavern scenes—and I reserve the right to use such later—but would not have served the plot so well.
**Yes, yes, I know a subset of readers will enjoy the details. If you are one of those readers, AWESOME! Just don’t expect the majority of readers to be on the same, er, page.